Grüezi aus Basel, Welthauptstadt der Kunst

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

 Basel, 13 June 2012

In our mission statement on 1 January 2012, we say that, while this blog is essentially political, blogs on art (and literature) may be introduced later.

Well, that time has come.

Today we publish our first post on art.

And where better to publish it than from that diamond among cities of art, that mecca of ancient, modern and contemporary culture, the world’s No 1 municipal Maecenas, the city of Basel in Switzerland.

We are here for the 43rd annual  Basel Art Fair from 14 to 17 June 2012 – the most prestigious modern and contemporary art market in the world, with its offshoots in Miami Beach and Hong Kong.

Here, however, we must declare an interest. We have been attending the Basel Art Fair, in a private capacity, for 22 years – more than half the duration of the fair’s existence. We have witnessed the progress of the legendary dealers of this world of high culture, gallery owners such as Daniel Blaise Thorens at Aeschenvorstadt 15  and  the late lamented Ernst Beyeler (1921 -2010), mythical founder of the Beyeler art foundation in the Basel suburb of Riehen. Over this time we have developed a deep affection for this sophisticated city and its cultured inhabitants. It may be, therefore, that we can justifiably be accused of a certain – hopefully, understandable – bias.

Today’s post is in two parts. First, we set Basel in its cultural and historical context. Then we round off with the famous Basel Picasso legend.


Let us start by correcting a few misapprehensions.

Basel is not a city in northwest Switzerland, as many people – even some Swiss people – fondly imagine. Basel is an Italian city. Yes, the principal buildings, the Minster on its mound and the Rathaus (1504-1514) in the Marktplatz,  are either Romanesque or in the Teutonic style of the northern Goths. Yes, the people speak German – after a fashion, for this is Schwiitzerdüütsch territory, after all – and the Rhine is not the Po, albeit that the inhabitants also speak the language of Dante, when necessary, and French, as well.  Nor are Sauerkraut or Weisswurst the staple food down this way: most of the good restaurants are Italian. But it is the brio of the people that is the most striking. No one who has mingled at midnight in high summer with the revellers in Barfüsserplatz can have any doubts: that square is the Piazza Navona of northern Europe.

The statistics are stupendous. A medium-sized city with 200 000 inhabitants (850 000 in the built-up area), Basel has no fewer than 40 museums. Modern artists represented in the collections include Richard Serra, Borofski, Rodin, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Tingely, etc.   One third of the winners of the Pritzker architecture prize  – the architectural equivalent of the Nobel – have built in the Basel Region : architects who have worked here include Richard Meier, Mario Botta, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, etc). The city has the largest three-tiered theatre in Switzerland. The celebrated Basel Symphony Orchestra plays regularly at the Stadt-Casino.

But it is not only high culture that is on offer. Hoi polloi also get a look-in. Carnivals are normally associated with Catholic regions but in the bleak midwinter time this historic bastion of Protestantism cheers itself up by hosting the largest Carnival (“Fasnacht”) in Switzerland, an event that always starts up at the unearthly hour of four o’clock of a Monday morning and then lasts for three days. Basil’s fun fair has a history of more than 550 years and the city likes to think of itself as “Switzerland’s football capital” .

The Celtic tribe of the Raurici were the first to settle here. The Romans stationed their armies on the Münster Hill in 30BC – just three years before Augustus was dubbed Emperor in Rome, when they called their stronghold Augusta Raurica. After the Dark Ages, a great Council of the Roman Church which questioned the supreme authority of the pope took place in Basel from 1431 to 1449. Switzerland’s first university was founded here in 1460. The botanist Paracelsus (1494-1541) studied medicine here and Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, is thought to have attended lectures. Printing was introduced by disciples of Gutenberg and  paper production also flourished. It was here that Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) wrote many of his most important works. Then came the Reformation, championed in Basel by Zwingli’s associate, Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531). In the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) taught in Basel. The great Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt (1818-1897) was born and died here. His Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (“The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”), published in 1860, was the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance before the twentieth century. It is still widely read. It was in Basel, too,  in 1897 Theodor Herzl addressed the first World Zionist Congress.

Economically, Basel is a major hub of commerce and banking and a world centre for chemicals and pharmaceuticals, global concerns such as Roche and Novartis having thrived in the city as a result of its historical involvement with textile dyeing and the weaving of silk ribbons.

Sharing with the rest of Switzerland a culture of direct democracy based on referendums (“Volksabstimmungen”) of all citizens, Basel has every right to be considered a fully-fledged  “polis”  (πόλις) on the lines of the classical Greek city-state so vividly revived for us during our recent sojourn in Athens.


We conclude today’s post by recounting below the classic Picasso story that is told and retold in artistic circles whenever the name of Basel comes up.

Basel has had a connection with Picasso since early works by the artist were exhibited at Basel’s Kunsthalle in 1914. No fewer than 55 works by Picasso in the Kunstmuseum’s collections are currently featured in its website.

Here is the story.

In the second half of the 1960s Basel’s Globe Air airline charter company, which belonged to the family of the Basel art collector Rudolph Staechelin, got into financial difficulties.  As a result, in 1967 the Staechelin family trust decided to sell a number of paintings to raise funds. These included The Two Brothers, which Picasso painted in 1906, and The Seated Harlequin of 1923. Both paintings, on loan from the Staechelin trust, were already hanging in the Basler Kunstmuseum.

The threat that these paintings would be sold and leave the museum gave kittens to Franz Meier, then director of the museum.  Meier was afraid that the “collection would lose all its cohesion” and that the Kunstmusem would lose its place on the A-list of the world’s great modern art collections. His fears were shared throughout the Basel art world as well as by the city magnates.

By way of a gesture towards the city, the Staechelin family turned down an offer from a New York dealer to sell the two works for 14 million Swiss franks and offered them instead to the Kunstmuseum for 8.4 million.

On 12 October 1967, with only a handful of votes against, Basel Council voted to set aside 6 million franks for the purchase, the remaining 2.4 million franks to be found through a fund-raising campaign, which climaxed successfully in a memorable “Beggars’ Feast” (Bettlerfest) on 25 November.

It was then that reaction set in. Opponents of the city fathers’s decision to spend a huge sum of taxpayers’ money on acquiring two works of art raised enough support among the population at large to trigger a referendum with the aim of annulling the council vote.

The referendum was held on 17 December 1967.  The turn-out was low (barely 40 per cent of the electorate), but the result produced a clear majority in support of the council’s decision: 32 118 citizens voted in favour of using public money to buy the paintings and 27 190 against.

The result was naturally greeted with jubilation throughout the Basel art community and the story received – and continues even today to receive – widespread media coverage throughout the world, thus enhancing Basel’s status among art lovers everywhere and confirming that a city whose fortunes are based on banking and pharmaceuticals need not necessarily be a hotbed of philistinism.

The story does not end there, however. In a fable-like ending, Picasso himself then enters the scene like a fairy godfather. It appears that when the artist heard what had happened in Basel he was deeply touched. As a result, Picasso and Jacqueline, his wife at the time, decided to donate to the Kunstmuseum a further four of his own works, including a pastel study for the ground-breaking “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”, the 1907 painting which ushered art into the modern world.

A fifth work by Picasso, “The Poet”, a cubist picture of 1912, was also donated to the museum by Basel collector and art patron Maja Sacher-Stehlin to express her delight at the people’s decision.

Finally, in 1974, a year after Picasso’s death, the city council renamed the square behind the Kunstmuseum “Picassoplatz”.

We are indebted for much of this story to the book “Kunstmuseum Basel” (1992) by Christian Geelhaar, a former director of the museum, and to Christian Selz of the museum’s press office.


You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich(6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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